Sunday, July 18, 2010

Miracles: Top-down vs. Bottom-up

One of the greatest stumbling blocks to skeptics concerning God's existence is a miracle. The scientific/naturalistic view, which developed during the Enlightenment period of Charles Darwin theology, left no room for the possibility of miracles. A miracle can be defined as "an extraordinary, extremely outstanding or unusual event." [1] The event is so unusual that Supernatural explanation is often given to account for the event. In the naturalistic worldview the Supernatural explanation is ruled out. If naturalistic science cannot explain an anomaly, the future will surely provide an explanation, because the naturalistic worldview does not permit any counter explanations outside of the realm of what occurs in nature. The question then arises, "Does science hold all the answers to those alleged miracles or is it reasonable to believe that a non-naturalistic explanation of reality of miracles exists?"

If miracles are a stumbling block and one is open to the possibility that a purely naturalistic explanation may not provide the most reasonable evidence for miracles, then what approach should one take. Two possibilities emerge called the Bottom-up approach and the Top-down approach. Let's take a look at both views, which much of the emphasis on the Bottom-up approach, to see if these anomalies of nature could fit a Supernatural explanation.

Both Bottom-up and Top-down approach are aptly named, for the former starts here on earth with miracles and works its way to God (arguing from miracles to God's existence), while the second argues for God's existence and proceeds toward Supernatural miracles. In the Bottom-up approach we have reasons to believe that Supernatural miracles have taken place and therefore, can reason that God exists. In the top-down approach, if it could be shown that God exists, then it is within reason to believe that miracles are Supernaturally possible. The bottom-up approach tends to lean heavily on historical evidence, which for many is a stumbling block in itself.

My personal preference is the Bottom-up approach, although I believe that both approaches can be equally effective depending on the disposition of the person that one is in dialogue with. If one has a skeptical bias against historical evidence, the Top-down approach should be employed. But, if one is open to historical evidence and the reliability of the Bible, then the Bottom-up approach could be effective. In both approaches the need for background work might be necessary. For example, an understanding of logic and the limits of science would be helpful for the Top-down method, where the Bottom-up approach , a historical foundation would be helpful concerning the New Testament and other first century documents.

One of the big proponents of the Bottom-up approach is Dr. Gary Habermas. In numerous articles and books, Habermas offers evidence for perhaps one of the most contested anomalies in history, that being the resurrection of Jesus. [2] If one is willing to accept that Jesus lived during the first century, but is unsure of miracles, then three powerful evidences can be given to show that the resurrection story was most probably miraculous.

In arguing for or against miracles, ultimately all possibilities must be considered if one is to be open minded. Historical evidence and the evidence of logic must be looked at. Looking at all the evidence from a purely naturalistic vantage will not provide a complete picture. The overwhelming evidence of first century documents points to the resurrection of Jesus. And, if the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation, then the door is wide open for miracles, the existence of God, and the purpose of life. If the resurrection of Jesus is the most plausible explanation, then this event tips the scales in favor of Jesus as being the promised Messiah.

What evidence supports the resurrection story? the first argument is the empty tomb. There is substantial evidence in history that the tomb was not only known, but was empty of the body of Jesus three days after his death. Jacob Kremer states, "By far most exegetes hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements about the empty tomb." [3]

The changed lives in people, who were willing to die and in many cases did for their belief in the resurrection of Jesus, is the second argument for the truthfulness of the resurrection of Jesus. Not only did people radically change and believe in the resurrection, but some of these changes lives were people who were formally antagonistic or doubtful of Jesus. One of Jesus own apostles, Thomas, would not believe unless he could physically touch and see Jesus (John 20:27). the life of Thomas forever changed, and according to tradition, he paid for his life as a martyr preaching the resurrection of Jesus. James, the brother of Jesus. is another individual who changed his view of Jesus. James, previous to the death of Jesus was far from believing in him (Mark 3:21; John 7:1-10). After Jesus appeared to his brother (Gal. 1:19), his life radically changed from an non-believer to a leader of the early Church (Acts 21:18). Finally, Paul, who persecuted the Church and Jesus (Acts 9:1-5), made the radical leap from a leader in the Jewish religion to one who gave his life in the pursuit and proclamation in the resurrection of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:1-20).

The third bit of evidence deals with the post-resurrection appearances. Theologian Michael Green has stated, "The appearances of Jesus are as well authenticated as anything in antiquity...There can be no rational doubt that they occurred and that they are the main reason why Christians became sure of the resurrection." [4]

The empty tomb, changed lives in the disciples, and the resurrection appearances provide strong support for one of the most contested anomalies on record. If the resurrection of Jesus is true, it not only validates his life and miracles, but also provides substantial evidence in the existence of God. The Bottom-up method can be effective if one is open to the historical evidence. If one were pre-disposed against any historical evidence, the Top-down approach would be the most logical argument for miracles. The open-minded person should not be closed to all the possibilities concerning miracles or anomalies. When all arguments are given concerning the existence of miracles, there is overwhelming evidence to believe that miracles are not only possible, but they are the most probable explanation of extremely outstanding events. If the Bottom-up approach for miracles using the historical evidence of the resurrection can be grasped by the skeptic, it offers the ultimate hope and purpose to the person without God. As J.R.R. Tolkien states concerning the resurrection of Jesus, "There has never been a story which men more wished were true."

[1] Merrian-Webster's School Dictionary, 1999, s.v. "Miracle"
[2] Link to Gary Habermas
[3] Jacob Kremer as quoted in William Lane Craig's, Reasonable Faith, 1994, p. 277
[4] Michael Green as quoted in Lee Strobel's, The Case For Faith, 2004, p. 240


Vinny said...

It seems like every week or two I hear some story about a man being released from prison because DNA testing that was not available at the time of his conviction now shows that he could not have committed the crime. Often the man had been convicted on the basis of eyewitness testimony.

If it is reasonable to prefer the conclusions of science to eyewitness testimony offered in open court and subject to cross-examination, can it be reasonable to reject science in favor of 2000-year-old anonymous accounts that were filtered through decades of oral transmission prior to being recorded?

Shelby Cade said...

Hi Vinny,

Thanks for responding. I don't think we should reject science, that is not what I'm saying. As far as Jewish oral tradition goes, I believe you have a very uninformed view of just how reliable it was.

If you want to discount Christianity then what are you going to do with early creedal passages concerning the death and resurrection of Jesus, such as 1 Corinthinas 15? If you want to show that Christianity fails, it is incumbent upon you to show that Jesus did not rise from the dead. That is an argument that I'm happy to have with anyone.

Vinny said...

I can understand why you might like to have that argument since I have no way to prove that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. On the other hand, I have no way to prove that the angel Gabriel didn’t appear to Mohammed to dictate the Koran either. I also don’t have any way to prove that Joseph Smith didn’t use seer stones to translate the Book of Mormon from golden plates. Nor do I have any way to prove that the galactic ruler Xenu didn’t visit earth 75 million years ago. And yet, I don’t believe in any of these events because I don’t believe the evidence is sufficient to establish that any of them happened and that is an argument that I am happy to have.

Early creedal statements indicate that people believed that Jesus rose from the dead and made appearances. I don’t doubt that this is what they sincerely believed any more than I doubt the sincerity of the beliefs of Muslims, Mormons and Scientologists. However, I have personally known people who sincerely believed that God had overridden the laws of nature for their benefit and I have known people who credulously pass on stories of the supernatural. In my experience, the best explanation for such tales has always been some combination of superstition, wishful thinking and lack of critical reflection.

Shelby Cade said...

Hi Vinny,

I'm not asking for proof. David Hume's proof is not what we are talking about. All I'm saying is that the evidence tips the scale in favor of the bodily resurrection of Jesus and not against it.

The hard sciences can only go so far. There are many questions that the hard sciences will never answer. What I'm after is the truth, and the evidence of resurrection is stronger than the evidence against it. Who's to say that scientism is not just a superstitous belief?

Vinny said...

The very idea that evidence can help us get at truth depends on the reliability of observed experience. The reason we think that fingerprints on a murder weapon constitute evidence of who committed the murder is because we understand the natural processes by which the patterns on people’s fingers get transferred onto other objects. Most importantly, we believe those processes can be relied upon to act consistently. If we thought that those patterns showed up randomly on objects, we couldn't say that that they constitute evidence. Similarly if we thought that God simply put those patterns on objects for his own unknown purposes, we could not conclude that the fingerprints told us anything

When you talk about evidence “tipping the scales,” you are necessarily invoking some sort of scientific or Hume-like proof. You can not assess the relative likelihood of different possibilities without some notion that things happen in predictable ways. When you draw inferences based on evidence, you rely on the prediction that the patterns that you observe in the world are the ones that are most likely to repeat themselves.

On the other hand, things can be said to happen in predictable ways when those ways are made known by divine revelation. Perhaps that is no less superstitious than relying on the uniformity of natural law as science does. However, it seems silly to talk about evidence tipping the scales when it comes to supernatural revelation. The thing is so because God has declared it to be so, not because the evidence makes it more likely.

It seems to me that you want to be seen as using the naturalistic methodology of making inferences based on evidence because you know how powerful and effective a methodology is. On the other hand, you also want to deride it as a presupposition or superstition because you don’t wish to face its limitation, which is that it requires the uniformity of nature in order to make predictions.

Shelby Cade said...

Hi Vinny,

I was on vacation with the family so was unable to respond sooner. I think we will continue to talk past one another because we seem to have different views as to how science should be defined. You come from a materialist view which would discount miracles from the outset. My view is that we should follow the evidence wherever it leads, and if it leads to a Supernatural explaination, that is the way we should go. Ultimatly we are interested in truth.

Following the evidence wherever it leads is exactly what changed the late atheist Anthony Flew toward Deism. For him it was the information in DNA and recent astronomical findings. As far as science answering all, this is a complete falsehood. For example, science will never answer why the Big Bang took place. Besides, how did we get something from nothing? Nothing in science can ever explain that.

Believing only that which can be measured or observed, is also a false premise for materialist's faith in science. There are many things we will never be able to measure or observe but people are willing to believe in them anyway. How about electrons, quarks, black holes? We can't observe them, but we can see the properties they exhibit. Macro-evolution is unobservable and measurable. The love I have for my family is unobservable or measurable.

We have two views of science, and I say you are arguing with one hand tied behind your back because you discount miricles outright and are unable to follow the evidence completly. I'll give you the last word if you wih to respond.

Vinny said...

I’m not really sure how big a difference there is in our views of how science should be defined. You have said that “science can only go so far” and I agree with that. The difference seems to me to be in what we do when we get as far as science can go. My inclination is to say “I don’t know” whereas yours is to say “Must be God.” I don’t claim to know that there is no God who is capable of performing miracles. I just don’t think that this is a question that can be answered on the basis of scientific reasoning.